Truth to tell, this is virtually a new record to these ears. Though this magazine’s name comes, in part, from the title of the first Uncle Tupelo album — and even though, in some quarters, ND was slagged as little more than an Uncle Tupelo fanzine — we’d published five or six issues before I bought the band’s first three discs from a Santa Monica used record store. Even those discs I’ve never quite lived with, as subsequent work by Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy has always demanded more immediate and detailed attention.
Anodyne did drift quickly through my hands when it was released in 1993. A guy named Jon then worked with me at a Seattle music magazine, and he was fond of scribbling “Jews For Uncle Tupelo” in men’s rooms across the country. So I played Anodyne when it came in, once, and gave it to him.
It was disappointing, then: neither punk — certainly not by the standards of grunge — nor country, as I understood Willie or Johnny or Hank. Uncle Tupelo had a reputation for fusion, but all I could guess was that they’d been compromised by their new major-label affiliation. Robbie Fulks’ “She Took A Lot Of Pills (And Died)”: That, I understood as a country-punk fusion.
Ten years later, Anodyne plays rather differently. To begin with, they were a pretty good band…and while that line’s meant, in these pages, for a bit of a laugh, it’s also meant seriously. They played well together, fitting into each other’s spaces, and they did so with a taciturn subtlety not calculated to penetrate ears attuned to Soundgarden and Screaming Trees.
Today, Anodyne seems most interesting for what it reveals about the paths Farrar and Tweedy would take soon after. As Richard Byrne’s liner notes acknowledge, some will review the lyrics for clues to the band’s dissolution, but the real answers to that question seem most obvious in the music which followed.
Farrar’s songs (say, “Slate”, here, though officially they’re all co-writes) are solitary affairs, requiring supporting players, not collaborators. The band had given him confidence, helped him to find his voice, taught him to — in his way — lead, taught him to trust what he wrote. Tweedy ended up with the remaining members (for awhile, anyway), but it is Farrar’s albums that sound most nearly like Anodyne. Tweedy, on the other hand, seems to thrive on collaboration, and has created a restless series of explorations that seem as much about sounds (old and new) as they are about sense.
Anodyne makes good sense as an ending point, the culmination of their collective learning curve. It’s the one album Tupelo made with major-label money, and its sound benefits from that largesse. Recorded in Austin, with Brian Paulson producing, a spirit of easy professionalism prevails (not quite punk, that, but…). And a resounding bit of joy when Doug Sahm joins them for “Give Back The Key To My Heart”.
The new package adds three outtakes from the Anodyne sessions, beginning with a crashing affair called “Stay True” that, so help me, sounds a little like early emo-core. “Wherever” is a prettier song that one could almost imagine as an outtake from Being There; the last is a cover (with Joe Ely) of “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” Two live promo-only tracks, “Truck Drivin’ Man” and “Suzy Q”, both adding Brian Henneman on guitar, finish out the disc. They’re nice additions, but the album (and the band) were complete without them.